Sunday, February 25, 2024

Did God promise Israel to the Jews?

 Texts: Genesis 12.1-9 & Hebrews 11.  2nd Sunday of Lent (Second Service Readings)

Tonight, as the bombs continue to fall over the Gaza strip, we’ve heard one of those passages of the book of Genesis which has caused a lot of trouble in the world.  We heard God apparently tell Abraham that he and his descendents would be given the land of Canaan.  This is a promise, often repeated by those Zionist Jews who claim a divine right to the Land called Holy.  They have faith in this apparent promise.  They put their faith in it.  They believe that it gives them license and permission to claim all the land in that region as theirs.

The problem – for anyone who wants to treat such an ancient promise literally – is that the Arab nations also claim that Abraham is their ancestor, through Abraham’s son Ishmael. The Jews claim their heritage through Isaac, and the Arabs through Ishmael – who was Abraham’s first born son via Hagar, Sarah’s maid.  The Jewish claim is given added strength by the fact that Isaac was born of Sarah – so, in our modern understanding of marriage, he was Abraham’s legitimate heir.  But Ishmael was born of Hagar by Sarah’s own suggestion (believing herself to be barren) – and Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, therefore.  As Sarah’s maid, Hagar was essentially a slave.  Her body belonged to Sarah (according to the ancient ways).  That is why Sarah felt that she could essentially use Hagar as a surrogate.

Do you see the complexity of the issue?  There is a legitimate argument, from both the Jews and the Arabs, that they are descendants of Abraham.  Indeed, we refer to the Jewish and Muslim faiths as ‘the Abrahamic religons’ – because they both count Abraham as their fore-father.  So which one has the most legitimate right to claim the promise of the Land of Canaan, that God made to their ancestor?

If an International Court was ever asked to decide this question, once and for all, they would have their work cut out for them.  First, they would need to rule on the issue of legitimacy at the time of Abraham – when concepts such as ‘wife’ or ‘concubine’ were rather fluid.  Secondly, they might be asked to rule on the textual origin of the story itself – and especially of God’s promise to Abraham.  If they were to call mainstream scholars to the stand, such scholars would tell them the facts.  Facts such as that since the 19th century (that is the 1800s) most scholars believe from close study of language, mythology, textual clues and the like, that Genesis was written about five or six hundred years before Christ – and not by Moses himself, half a millennia earlier, as tradition has claimed.  They would say that it is largely a mythological document – written at a time when many civilizations were creating myths and stories to explain their origins, and give weight to their claims of ownership of land, or to give authority to the priestly class.  The Greeks, for example, were revelling in the legends of Homer at around the same time.  The Egyptians had their own mythological stories and gods.

So, an international court, asked to adjudicate on the claim that God gave the land of Canaan to the Jews, would be forced to conclude that such a claim can only be substantiated through faith – and not from either the text, or the known history of that period.

And so, we come to the question of faith – meaning faith in the sense that the Jews mean it, when they claim the promise of God to Abraham.    And that is one kind of faith.  It is the kind of faith which gives intellectual assent to a set of ideas or theological statements.  It is the kind of faith which decides to accept that one unevidenced statement is true, while another is not.  It is by such faith that we might believe (or not) that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that the world was created in six days, or that Noah built an ark to carry all the animals of the world (but somehow forgot the dinosaurs!). 

This is also the kind of faith that has caused wars and conflict between people of different faith throughout the millennia.  It is by faith that Muslims believe Mohammed to be the last and greatest prophet.  It is by such faith that some Christians assert the divine right of the Bishop of Rome to govern the church.  It is by such faith that crusades were led to recapture Jerusalem. It is by such faith that Christians have burned one another at the stake over what seem to us to be very minor differences of theology.  Today, that kind of faith is tearing portions of the church apart over what each side believes that God does, or does not, approve about the state of marriage.

Such faith – the willingness to accept, or reject, various different religious ideas – is a dangerous thing, therefore.  There can be no objective proof for any statement of faith.  There is no way to know, objectively, whether or not to intellectually assent to any given religious proposition. And therefore, I would argue, no cause whatsoever for killing each other over such ideas.

But is there another kind of faith – one that we could wholeheartedly accept, without any reservations?  I want to argue that there is.  The kind of faith I’m talking about is the faith which trusts in a way of life, and which sets out to live, with integrity, according to that way of life.  Did you know that Jesus’ first followers were not called Christians?  In fact, they were called ‘followers of The Way’. 

So when I say that I have faith in Jesus, I don’t mean that I am willing to die for a belief in his virgin birth, or even his bodily resurrection.  What I mean by calling myself a Christian, is that I put my trust in the teachings, the life and The Way of Jesus, the Christ.  He showed us, by his generous, self-sacrificing, healing and reconciling life that generosity, sacrifice, healing and reconciling are the means by which human beings may yet be able to dig ourselves out of the mire.  If only we could truly grasp the immense power of lives poured out in sacrifice to one another, the awesome potential of the simple command to love our neighbour, the incredible possibility of human happiness if we could only learn to share! Then all the religious propositions which divide us into factions and creeds and denominations and religions could just fade away into the obscurity they deserve.

That’s a faith worth having.  That’s a faith worth living for.  That’s a faith worth even dying for.  Amen.

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